The Captain Is the Last to Leave
By Caroline Lockwood Nelson
9 July 2007
They've combed the fields for her. They've stormed the woods, men and dogs and volunteers with Styrofoam cups and stale cookies, howling her name. They've sifted the sea, nets with nothing but rocks and fish and seaweed and shells.
"Maybe she got drug out," the sheriff says and ducks his head away from the camera. But he doesn't specify where: to the woods, to the water, or some other, unnamed place. "There was trouble," he says. "Somebody cut Jethro's traps the week before." He glares at the newscasters as they lean over the yellow tape, then shakes his head. "But nobody around here would do a thing like this."
This is what the girl tells Wade. She sits across from him, uncomfortable, and she twists the gold cross closer to her throat, Jesus with his outstretched arms branded there on the white skin for just a moment.
"What was Jessie short for?" Wade asks. "Was it for Jessamine?"
The girl pours pink packaged sweetener and stirs her coffee with her finger. "I never heard that name before." She calls for Annie to bring her a piece of pie. "You said you were family?"
"Cousin," Wade says easily. The diner's got huge windows and he watches the water toss itself on the granite, self-destructive as a grieving widow. "You're sure you don't have a single picture?" he coaxes. He means to coax. Wade looks at the white tower of the lighthouse, at the empty socket beneath the glass up there at very top, at the attached farmhouse where a keeper once lived.
"The Angel Gabriel crashed right there," the girl says, pointing at the endless shelves, ledges, slices of granite. Granite is everywhere, sudden chunks of it tripping him in lawns, half-buried in the grass like headstones. That's what he thought they were at first, old Puritan relics with the names rubbed off and the lichen creeping yellow. "Jethro's ancestors were on that ship. From England. He had a piece of the captain's wheel in his bedroom. Very proud of that." Her pie arrives and she tells him that if you step too close to the surf, the waves will sweep you right off. "Tourists don't know that," she says. "They don't know how sudden things can be."
He can sense it the lightening eyelashes, the bite of teeth on her lip, the quickened hand at her throat, Christ twisting faster and faster. Wade feels like a prophet. This girl will weep. One moment. She will drop her hand down to her napkin and find it full of pie crumbs. He will offer her his. She will tell him something about Jessie. He sees the signs in the halt of her breath, in the way she clutches her fork. It will be as he foretells.
"Jessie hated having her picture taken," the girl tells him. He would like to tell her what a young girl she is for all of this, too young for ripped-out throats and missing women. He would like to squeeze her hand, but he stays on his side of the booth and watches the waves and the gray sky and he waits for her to quiet.
When Wade arrives at the hotel room, Roamer is waiting, stretched on the sheets, changing channels, his shoes off, looking like a lazy lion, a sprawled, golden thing.
"Well?" Roamer asks. Wade moves toward the requisite hotel room desk and draws the curtains together, heavy floral things that resist the tug of his hand. He wants to block out the gray sky.
"I don't know. Maybe it's her."
"Of course it's her," Roamer complains. "Torn throats, wife vanished. Who else do you think it is, Wade? Freddy Krueger?"
Wade watches his brother's face in the quick colors of the television light. Here in the dark, Roamer doesn't look as sharp. All the angles are gone, the bones softer, smile sweeter, everything dimmed. Wade flips on the glass lamp at the table. He opens the curtains again. Best to see things as they are, he thinks and returns to the desk. He pulls out stationary, soft paper with the Inn's name in large letters, and he looks at Roamer in the light. He looks young, Wade thinks. God, so young. Roamer could be twenty. He looks down at his own unlined hands. They were all twenty once.
"It's her," Roamer insists. "So either let's go to the house and see what you can find, or let's leave."
"And what if it's not?"
"You think some woman with a name she's used, with her middle name, just happened to be the victim of a crime just like the ones she's. . .just like all those times? You believe in coincidences, Wade? You think it's a cosmic accident that everything points towards her? And if it's her, she's gone. So you're the one left asking questions."
"We can't just allow her to do this, year after—" but Roamer cuts him off.
"You wanna stop her, Wade? Then do what you've got to. You're the king of time, Wade. When are you gonna stop wasting it?"
Wade looks at his brother's back against the fat pillows, feet on the quilt, Doc Martens in down.
"Maybe there's some other way," Wade suggests, and stands to flip off the TV. Roamer immediately hits the on button again, holding out the remote like a gun, pointing it petulantly at Wade.
"I was watching that," he says. Wade's too tired to argue. "What way? We've been at this routine for years, Wade. All those towns, all those places. You tell me if you really think there's some other way." Roamer's voice drops as he says the next part, his lips closed over his teeth as speaks, like the words ache as they leave his mouth. "I knew her best of all, once, and I don't even know where she's gonna show up next. I have no idea."
"Pretty roses," Wade says, politely, pointing out the window, and he tells Roamer that the woman called Jessie Anson didn't like pictures. "Babysitter said she refused to pose for them. But she took about two hundred of her kids on special occasions."
"Everybody else said about the same," Roamer's voice is heavy with grudge, and Wade almost reaches out to put a hand on his brother's shoulder. "Loved her babies, loved her husband. Nobody knew much about her life before she came here. From Montana, I guess she told them. Small town, not much family."
It's the standard story. The story they hear every ten years or so. Killings put down to drifters. Wife's body never found. Not a suspect. There was enough of her blood at the scene, and the husband required too much force. Even for a tall woman. And she loved them. Her sons or daughters, her husband. She's held hands at the crosswalk, trimmed hair over the sink. She'd swept dust and bathed babies; she'd baked Rice Krispie treats. They'd gone out dancing when they could. She loved the movies, she'd hand-sewn every princess costume, every goblin, Indian, geisha, mermaid, alien.
"If you really want to help," Roamer says, "you'll go there." He stands, opening the door and looking out, furtive, before laughing and shoving the maple open hard, so that it smashes into the shingled wall and bounces back towards him. "You'll go there," he repeats. "You can see it all there, Wade. You know you can."
And Wade knows they're seeking her for different reasons. They've spent half their remembered lives following Jessie. Wade's hands on her things, trying to sense her as he stands there in the aftermath, looking at the relics, touching walls for half-second flashes and he sees it all, those moments. Jessie's love, and her viciousness. But never where she'll go next, just useless glimpses of the future, and the past.
But they will find her. That's what he knows, in his bones and brains.
"If you had a set, we would have found her already," Roamer murmurs. Wade crosses to the open door. More gray sky over the Inn's garden, where two little white tea tables are still out from the summer. A nice place, he thinks. An old-fashioned place.
"Fine," he responds, waiting for the clever retort to tumble off his tongue.
"I'm bored," Roamer says as they stroll to their rental car, a dirty green American thing, too-small seats and only a tape deck.
"Wait 'til we leave to feed," Wade says. "Don't disturb things here."
"Kinda your motto, huh?"
Wade starts to say a hundred things at once. You're the one who collapsed last time, little brother. And fuck you, and maybe even I loved her too, once long ago, but he chokes on all the words and sits there in silence instead, in the passenger seat of a sputtering car as Roamer steers them towards a small house with a sliver of sea view and a vegetable garden. And granite pieces poking through the green of the lawn. Only a couple hundred yards from the cemetery where they buried Jessie's children, her husband, snuggled in the ground there among the headstones of their forefathers, with tiny soggy flags beside the tombs of every veteran.
"Turn left," he tells Roamer. "You're going down the wrong lane."
"I know what I'm doing," Roamer says, and Wade is not feeling cruel enough to comment. He merely repeats his instructions to turn left.
They pull in front of the small house, where Jessie lived with her human family. He can sense it from here, Jessie's longing, trapped in the wooden shingles slanted against winter. He feels it radiating off the roof: Jessie's fury, her sorrow, her will.
"I don't want to go in," he says.
"Come on," says Roamer, impatient, blind to the crackling of the air, warning of a thunderstorm that will tear down the tree two yards over. But Wade sees it all, and Roamer just waits for Wade to relay it. Wade the translator, the always-interpreter of unseen things, and he hates his brother in that moment, hates Roamer as Roamer's arm shoves Wade's shoulder to the door, where Wade can hear the final scream of Jessie's daughter.
"Dammit, Jess," he whispers. He can see the blood beneath the Windex clean of the windows, and the way things were. She sat at that table, and stared at her fridge, contemplating the meat on her hips, trying to resist the half and half, keeping her tea and coffee black. He kissed her against that counter, her husband Jethro, and he told her loved her while she yanked the eggplants from their dirty beds, her gloves ripped from years of gardening, and she smiled up.
We were human once. His lips crack as he mouths the words on his mind, the edges broken by the salt air, and he licks the corners and thinks he tastes blood, but when he swipes at his smile, all that comes away is dead skin and dry saliva.
"It was Jess," he tells Roamer, and Roamer runs his fingers across the linoleum counter, casual, and for just a second, Wade thinks he sees his brother press down, hands hard on the pale yellow, like he could will Jessie back to this place, like he could force her home, like he could change the whole world if he just pushed down hard enough.
"It was Jessie," Wade repeats. And they flash in his head too fast, leaving him dizzy: the memories and emotions and moments. Jessie furious with her husband, tossing a World's Best Mom mug straight at his head. Jessie unwrapping a gold necklace at Christmas, her husband Jethro grinning with one of those stupid Santa hats on his head. Jessie singing to her babies, off-key; Jessie worried about money, about her weight, about where the hell she put her car keys and should she cut down the climbing sea roses.
"Hello?" A voice calls out, childish, a young voice, as Roamer wanders the room, touching trinkets and Wade buries his head in his hands at Jessie's kitchen table. We were human once.
It's the babysitter from before, the girl who told him Jessie hated photos. What was her name? Terri?
"Are you guys supposed to be here?" she asks, peering around the sliding glass door that separates the kitchen from the yard, a door that opens slowly, almost off its track.
"Are you?" Roamer demands. The girl looks away and then up again. Her eyes drop down.
"Don't be an asshole." Wade pushes himself from the table. "My brother Roamer. This is Tyra. She babysat for Jessie's children." He gestures back and forth between him. Roamer's staring off in the direction of the sea.
"They were so little," Tyra says now. "Chelsea was learning to read. Jessie, I mean Mrs. Anson, was teaching her."
"Tragic," Roamer mutters.
"Ignore him," Wade steers the girl back outside, glaring over his shoulder. "Some people handle grief strangely."
"Did you know them? The kids I mean?" The girl pulls down the sleeve of her sweatshirt to cover her fist. Her hair hangs tangled all around her face. A pretty girl, maybe, full cheeks and pale skin. Christ still hangs gold, facedown in the cotton-poly folds of cloth. Wade reaches out to turn him right, but the girl backs away, two fast steps from him.
"Sorry," he says. "I just wanted to. . .I was just trying to fix it." He wonders what she knows, what she senses, if she looks at him and understands somewhere in her gut that she should stay away.
"Do you think they'll find her?" the girl, Tyra, wants to know. She's wearing a pink sweatshirt, the only spot of color in this endless gray afternoon.
"No," he says, probably the only truth he's told her.
He can see Roamer through the shut-glass doors, Roamer with a kid's trophy in his hand and his eyes distant. He forgets sometimes, looking at his brother, that that's what people see when they look at him. Tall and young. Darker hair than Roamer's gold, and brown eyes instead of blue. But same sharp cheekbones, wide lips, pale lashes. Same small nose, same long fingers. Handsome, he thinks. Maybe. He doesn't like to look in mirrors.
"The week before all this, Jessie told me this story. Well, she was really telling Tyler. He was almost ten, you know."
"Yes," Wade prompts.
The girl looks back towards the house, back towards a place where she spent hours, sneaking ice cream bars from the fridge and watching their cable TV. She doesn't have her own TV, at her house where her father yells at nights. Wade learned this in the heavy wood of Jessie's kitchen chairs, in the brown rug of the living-dining room, in the brown rug thick enough for hidden Cheerios and red wine spills.
He smiles, lips over teeth. He hates his fucking teeth. And nobody can even tell, not until the moment it happens.
"She was talking about the Immortal People. She liked to tell stories. But this one was different. But I'm being stupid. It was the same. Oh, God." The girl sits down on one of the granite slabs, large enough for two people to sit together, but Wade stays standing. Roamer's disappeared out of the kitchen. And Wade knows it suddenly, the way he knows the taste of his own tongue, the composition of his own blood, that Roamer has gone to the bedroom. Where they found the body of the husband. The children were in the kitchen. Roamer has gone to the bedroom and he is staring at the bed where the woman he once loved lived a whole life with somebody else. He is staring down at the blue bedspread, sent to Jessie by her mother-in-law, from Amish country, and he is biting his lip and shaking his head so slowly that he doesn't even notice that he's doing it. Roamer is standing by the bed with his arms stiff at his sides, unable to reach out, to touch the fabric or the pillows, to touch the brush on the dresser or the tape deck by the bed. His hand drifts up, but he drops it down, looking at the bed, utterly alone as he stands in his soldier's stance and he refuses to break. Out here Wade finally sits beside this girl and pats her back, trying to keep their bodies far apart on the stone.
The grass at their feet curls up dead, and from here, Wade can't see the ocean. There is just the hedge and a flash of the neighbor's house, and the girl next to him crying. He fills in the story to himself, holding her hand.
He sees Jessie on her sofa, her son's head golden in her lap as she speaks, Bruce Springsteen singing low, Tyra finishing a bowl of pudding after Jessie came home earlier than expected. Jessie speaking, not making witch voices and dragon roars like usual, but talking low and dreamy, telling her son the truth of things. That we stand in the sunshine and freckle. That we cross ourselves when devils pass, that we kneel in churches, and eat pasta with garlic. That we nick our legs in the shower and groan when we give birth, to children who will never outlive us. That we walk among men and that we get nothing from them, not their strength, not their folly, not their pasts. Just a second of warmth and then we let the bodies drop. But we are cursed.
That's the part Wade knows best, the blighted blood.
We do not remember our own mortal lives, Jessie said to her son, but that was a lie. Jess remembered.
We do not know the future or the past. But Wade sees it all, Old Father Time open on the table, all his secrets there for Wade to paw and ponder.
We do not kill to live. But because we can't resist ourselves. Because all of a sudden, maybe twice a year, maybe twice a century, we feel it in our hands and teeth and brains and blood. We feel vicious. We have lived forever. And we are tired. And we sink our teeth into skin and tear and gush and drink more than we need because we want somebody to die.
Because we cannot.
Wade holds this girl's small fingers in his and her breath slows and sounds normal. She tells him that she thinks Jessie maybe snapped, talking vampires with her sad eyes. Maybe something in Jessie gave out or in and she looked around at her life and lost it.
"Sometimes," this girl, this Tyra tells him, "women around here get unhappy in their own lives. Can you imagine how endless it feels to wake up each morning and have to make somebody else's breakfast before your own? To fold laundry and scrub and clean and know that everything that's not duty, anything you do for yourself, is resented, is looked on as luxury? To be a smart woman tied to a man who spends his time with traps and bait and never looks up to see that you've sold your soul for almost nothing: for a small house you'll never pay off, and kids who will never really understand how you've fed them pieces of yourself over the years, and all your dreams dead as the lobsters that appear on the table each night?"
"How old are you?" Wade asks, woken from his own world by her words, by the acceptance on her tongue of things she'll never have, of truths she'll always know.
"I'm seventeen," she says, and then, "There's this thing. When a ship goes down, and they're piling people onto rescue boats? That the captain's the last to leave. He can't abandon ship, see, because it's his."
She stands as she speaks and Wade looks at the long legs in their dark blue jeans, torn with scissors on her floor to look like the ones she sees in magazines. He closes his eyes against the flash of her life, but she's still there in front of him, speaking, and he glimpses her holding back her mother's hair over the toilet bowl, and hearts and flowers on her homework where the name belongs. A good girl, he thinks. A nice girl.
"And if he's got to," Tyra tells him, "he goes down with the ship. And maybe for that moment, when he feels the weight of the water over him, he wishes that he were selfish and wicked, that he'd left while he could."
"You think Jessie did it," Wade says slowly, unsure how she'll take the words, this gazelle of a girl.
"I think Jessie gave and gave and gave." She picks off a piece of the hedge and tears it between her fingers.
Yes, Wade thinks. She always does, offering them everything, these damn people she chooses to call her own, imitating her long-lost life over and over, until her teeth ache as she kisses the tops of her children's heads, as her heart pounds for just one sip, as her mouth closes down, against her will, and then they are gone. Like the last ones and the ones before that. "If we can find her, we can stop her," Roamer tells Wade every time. "Then things will be like before." But Jessie grows madder by the decade, Wade thinks, desperate and lonely. He can feel her in this yard, biting into the skin of her own wrist to keep from the throats of her children. And he remembers her dancing in Roamer's arms, weeping on the stairs. "I remember," she'd said. "Give it back to me." Poor Jessie, all fury and curls, stamping and storming, and seeing them everywhere, the ghosts of her babies. What Wade always wonders is how she forgets, that she sees every second of her human life and forgets the rest: the children after that, the babies with human fathers who never make it past the age of twelve, the men who love her and marry her and die with her hands on their throats. How she forgets even her companion of all those years, the way Roamer held her so close in his arms. But Roamer never could keep her close enough.
He stands too, and almost reaches out a hand to shake goodbye, or something equally inane, but shoves his fists in his pockets instead. He should find his brother. He should leave this place. Jessie's long gone, and maybe they'll find traces of her someplace else. Regular Jessie, kills like clockwork. But this time, he'd like to stop her before she unwinds again, before he's forced to stand in a living room and feel her agony and underneath that, the last seconds of the people she'd loved.
"It's not her fault," Tyra tells him, and at last, her eyes are clear and dry. He thinks he sees her in front of the Pantheon, a camera poised towards the ruins, her hair the same as now, unbrushed and long. Yes, he thinks. Live well, Tyra.
Roamer's against the wall when Wade enters the bedroom, gold head folded over his knees.
"Look what she's done," he says without looking up, and then to some phantom of Jessamine herself, some vision that lurks always at the corners of his mind: "Jesus, Jess. You can't kill children. We never kill children." But he's not talking to Wade, who knows the rules, who knows the price.
"We have to stop her," Wade tells him.
"I know that," Roamer snarls.
"No," Wade says, "Not that kind of stop."
"You're not serious."
Wade sees many things. That you could spend a whole lifetime or two holding onto hopes, like Roamer, like Jessie, like himself maybe. Always following, allowing, caught up in visions and pain, never seeing the lines of the future the way they really arrange themselves. Or you could forgive, like Tyra, and know that some things are unpreventable, accidents or fate. Or you could stand on your own two feet and haul your brother up and shut the door behind you, even though you hate what you have to do, standing and seeing your ship down to the end.